Titolo della tesi: Macroecology of global alpine vegetation
Alpine ecosystems, namely high-elevation habitats above the climatic treeline, are essential to human livelihoods and are among the environments with the highest vulnerability to anthropogenic climate change. Despite the overall agreement on the distribution and ecological features of terrestrial biomes, the actual extent and bioclimatic characteristics of alpine ecosystems worldwide are still uncertain. Furthermore, the patterns and drivers of plant diversity and functioning in alpine ecosystems are largely unknown at the global scale. This work represents an important contribution to the delineation of macroecological patterns of global alpine biomes.
First, I created a map of global alpine areas by modelling regional treeline elevations at high spatial resolution using global forest cover data. I used this map in combination with global digital datasets to assess the climatic characteristics of alpine ecosystems and to evaluate patterns of primary productivity. Second, I assessed the global patterns of plant species richness in alpine ecosystems and the relative effect of environmental, geographical and historical factors at different spatial scales. To do so, I compiled a global dataset of alpine vegetation consisting of more than 8,900 plots, evaluated latitudinal patterns of regional and community richness and modelled them against different predictors estimated using global raster layers. Third, I assessed the functional variation of alpine vegetation and its relationship with evolutionary history and macroclimate. I filtered the abovementioned dataset of alpine vegetation plots based on the availability of functional trait and phylogenetic data. I assessed the functional trade-offs of alpine plant species and the functional dissimilarity of alpine vegetation across large geographic units with different dominant lowland vegetation, macroclimate, and evolutionary history. Finally, I modelled functional dissimilarity against environmental and phylogenetic dissimilarity.
I found that alpine biomes cover almost 3% of land outside Antarctica. Despite temperature differences across latitudes, these ecosystems converge below a sharp threshold of 5.9 °C and towards the colder end of the global climatic space. Below that temperature threshold, alpine ecosystems are influenced by a latitudinal gradient of mean annual temperature and are climatically differentiated by seasonality and continentality. This gradient delineates a climatic envelope of global alpine biomes. Although alpine biomes are similarly dominated by poorly vegetated areas, world ecoregions show strong differences in the productivity of their alpine belt irrespectively of major climate zones. Furthermore, in contrast with the well-known latitudinal diversity gradient, plant species richness of some temperate alpine regions in Eurasia is comparable to that of hyper-diverse tropical alpine ecosystems. This pattern is mainly explained by the current and past alpine area, isolation, and variation in soil pH among regions, while community richness depends on local environmental factors. Finally, plant species in alpine areas seemingly reflect the global variation of plant function and are mainly differentiated for their resource-use strategies. The current macroclimate exerts a limited effect on alpine vegetation, mostly acting at the community level in combination with evolutionary history. Alpine vegetation is also functionally independent from the vegetation zones in which it is embedded, exhibiting strong functional convergence at the global scale.
Overall, despite their global distribution and apparent heterogeneity, alpine environments form a distinct group of functionally convergent biomes, strongly decoupled from lowland environments, and with a varied biogeographic history, whose legacy can still be observed on current diversity patterns which are locally refined by fine-scale factors.